Something's About to Hit the Fan
"Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course . . . No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity immeasurably diminished."
1600 Senior Scientists from 71 countries, including half of all Nobel Prize winners, November 18, 1992
World Scientists Warning to Humanity
There is a disturbing theory about the human species that has begun to take on an alarming level of reality. It seems that the behavior of the human race is displaying uncanny parallels to the behavior of pathogenic, or disease-causing, organisms.
When viewed at the next quantum level of perspective, from which the Earth is seen as an organism and humans are seen as microorganisms, the human species looks like a menace to the planet. In fact, the human race is looking a lot like a disease-causing pathogen, which is an organism excessively multiplying, consuming, and producing harmful waste, with no regard for the health and well-being of its host - in this case, planet Earth.
Pathogenic organisms are a nasty quirk of nature, it seems, although they do have their constructive purposes, namely killing off the weak and infirm and ensuring the survival of only the fittest. They do this by overwhelming their hosts, by essentially sucking the vitality out of them and leaving poisonous wastes in their wake. Pathogens do not give a damn about their host organisms, and they often kill them outright.
This may seem a silly way for a species to maintain its own existence - afterall, if you kill the host upon which you feed and upon which your life depends, then you must also die. But pathogens have evolved a special survival tactic that allows them to carry on the existence of their own species even after their host has died. They simply travel to another host, sending out envoys to seek out and infect other organisms even as their main pathogenic population succumbs along with their original host. A man dying of tuberculosis coughs on his deathbed, an act instigated by the infecting pathogen, ensuring that the disease has a chance to spread to others. A child defecates on the dirt outside her home, unwittingly satisfying the needs of the parasites inhabiting her intestines, which require time in the soil as part of their life cycle. A person stricken with cholera defecates in an outhouse which leaches tainted water into the ground, contaminating the village well-water and allowing the disease to spread to other unsuspecting villagers.
In the case of pathogenic organisms that kill their host, the behavior is predictable: multiply without regard for any limits to growth, consume as if there were no tomorrow, and excrete waste products that grievously harm the host. When this is translated into human terms, it rings with a disquieting familiarity, especially as we relentlessly equate human success with growth, consumption, material wealth, and profit.
Suppose we humans are, in fact, exhibiting disease behavior: we're multiplying without regard for limits, consuming natural resources as if there were no tomorrow, and producing waste products that are distressing the planet upon which our very existence depends. Well, there are two factors which we, as a species, are not taking into consideration. First is the survival tactic of pathogens, which requires additional hosts to infect. We do not have the luxury of that option, at least not yet. If we succeed at continuing our dangerous behavior, we also succeed in marching straight toward our own demise. In the process, we can also drag many other species down with us, a dreadful syndrome that is already underway. This is evident by the threat of extinction that hangs, like the sword of Damocles, over an alarming number of the Earth's species.
Second, however, there is one remaining consideration: infected host organisms fight back. As humans become an increasing menace, can the Earth try to defend itself? Absolutely, and in several ways. Number one is climate change, also known as global warming. When a disease organism infects a human being, for example, one of the defense mechanisms our body deploys is the elevation of its own temperature. This rise in temperature not only inhibits the growth of the infecting pathogen, but also greatly enhances the disease fighting capability within the body. Global warming may be the Earth's way of inducing a fever - as a reaction to human pollution of the atmosphere and human over-consumption of fossil fuels. Sound ludicrous? Don't laugh - read on.
When the internal human body temperature rises, the micro-climate of the body changes, allowing for the sudden and rapid proliferation of antibodies, T-cells, white blood cells, and other defenders against disease. As the global climate changes, and as the natural environment chokes with pollution, we humans do have an idea of what sort of organisms nature can and will suddenly unleash to confront us. They're already beginning to show themselves as insect pest population booms, as well as new strains of deadly bacteria, viruses, and algae particularly toxic to humans.
So Earth's temperature slowly and inexorably rises, and, despite the potentially perilous consequences, humans try to ignore it. Global carbon emissions from fossil fuels are expected to reach nine billion tons per year by 2010,1 and are expected to raise the Earth's temperature by two to six degrees Fahrenheit in the next century.2 The Earth's temperature in 1998 was the highest ever recorded and exhibited the largest annual increase, setting "a new record by a wide margin," according to NASA scientists.3 The 15 warmest years on record have occurred since 1980.4 The highest ever sea temperature in the North Atlantic was recorded in 1995, the same year that twice the normal number of tropical storms occurred. Today, ecologists are shocked to see large portions of Antarctica melting, breaking off, and falling into the Southern Sea.5All the while, spokespersons for the fossil fuels industry, the largest economic enterprise in human history, dismiss the frightening evidence as merely environmentalist scare tactics, unsubstantiated by valid scientific proof.
As the planet's temperature rises, it gains a momentum that cannot be stopped, no matter how desperate or repentant we humans may eventually become. The Earth's "fever," like a spinning flywheel, will only subside in its own time. With global warming and climate change, we may have created a Frankenstein's monster of astronomical proportions. Unless, of course, we are pathogenic organisms. If so, then we really don't care, do we?
"A great change in our stewardship of the Earth and life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated."
World Scientists Warning to Humanity
Pathogens can often dwell for quite some time within the host organism without causing disease symptoms. Then something happens to spark their growth - they gain a sudden foothold and begin proliferating rapidly. It is at this point that disease effects begin to undeniably show themselves.
Humans began to strongly show their pathogenic potential toward the planet during the 1950s, ravenously devouring natural resources and discarding waste into the environment with utter carelessness. Since then, for example, our fish catch has increased by a factor of five, paper consumption by a factor of six, grain consumption tripled, fossil fuel burning quadrupled and atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have reached the highest level in 150,000 years.6
Human consumption can be roughly measured by our output of material goods. Since 1950, the global output of human goods and services grew sixfold. Between 1990 to 1997, human global output grew as much as it did from the beginning of civilization until 1950. In fact, the global economy grew more in 1997 alone than during the entire 17th century.7
Now, at the end of the 20th century, our consumptive and wasteful lifestyles have painted a critical global picture. Almost half of the world's forests are gone. Between 1980 and 1995, we lost areas of forestland larger than the area of Mexico, and we are still losing forests at a rate of 16 million hectares a year.8 Water tables are falling on every continent from one to three meters per year. Fisheries are collapsing, farmland is eroding, rivers are drying, wetlands are disappearing, and species are becoming extinct.9 Furthermore, the human population is now increasing by 80 million people each year (roughly the population of ten Swedens). Such population growth virtually guarantees increased consumption as well as increased waste with each passing year.10
The damage of human over-consumption shows itself in other ways. Today, half of the coastlines and nearly 60% of the coral reefs on the planet are threatened with overdevelopment, pollution, and overfishing. Although almost no species of ocean fish was overexploited in 1950, now nearly 70% of fish species are either fully exploited or overexploited by humans.11 Oceans and other bodies of water have long been used as dumps by the human species. For example, since 1950, mercury contamination has increased by a factor of five in the Baltic Sea. In the Black Sea, 85% of the marine species have disappeared.12
What about extinctions? The natural background rate of extinctions is estimated to be about one to ten species per year. Currently, it's estimated that we're instead losing 1,000 species per year. More than 10% of all bird species, 25% of all mammals, and 50% of all primates are threatened with extinction. Freshwater fish now face a 37% extinction rate in America, 42% in Europe, and 67% in South Africa.13
Plant life is not immune to the forces of destruction that are threatening so many species either. Of 242,000 plant species surveyed by the World Conservation Union in 1997, one out of every eight (33,000 species) was threatened with extinction.14
What would drive a species to damage its life support system in this way? Why would we humans disregard our host organism, the Earth, as if we were nothing more than pathogens intent upon its destruction? One answer, as we have seen, is consumption. Somewhere along the line we learned to embrace the idea that more is better, measuring success with the yardstick of material wealth. Some startling statistics bear this out: the 225 richest people in the world (0.000003% of the world's population) have as much acquired wealth as the poorest half of the entire human race, while the wealth of the world's three richest people is equivalent to the total output of the poorest 48 countries. We in the United States certainly can raise our hands and be counted when it comes to consumption - our intake of energy, grain, and materials is the highest on the planet. We Americans can admit to using three tons of materials per month, each of us, and that's not counting food and fuel. Despite the fact that we are only 1/20 of the globe's population, we use 1/3 of the globe's resources. To sustain the entire world at this level of consumption would require no less than three planet Earths.15
"There is an exceptional degree of agreement within the scientific community that natural systems can no longer absorb the burden of current human practices."
World Scientists Warning to Humanity
Wanton consumption breeds wanton wastefulness. Since the 1950s, more than 750 million tons of toxic chemical wastes have been dumped into the environment.16 By the end of the 1980s, production of human-made synthetic organic chemicals linked to cancer had exceeded 200 billion pounds per year, a hundred-fold increase in only two generations.17 By 1992, in the US alone, over 435 billion pounds of carbon-based synthetic chemicals were being produced. In 1994, well over a million tons of toxic chemicals were released into the 18 environment. Of these, 177 million pounds were known or suspected carcinogens.19
There are now about 75,000 chemicals in commercial use, and 3,750 to 7,500 are estimated to be carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans. That means that one out of every ten commercial chemicals may be cancer-causing - chemicals dispensed into your home via such common household items as aerosols, air fresheners, deodorizers, furniture polish, or the lumber used in the construction of your picnic table.
Toxic chemicals have been carelessly dumped into the environment since their creation. Forty thousand of the most notorious dump sites and hazardous waste landfills have been termed Superfund sites. Of these, there are 1,231 "priority" sites, with 40 million people (one in every six Americans) living within four miles of one.20
Today, as a result, 40% of Americans can expect to contract cancer in their lifetimes. I can think of quite a few people, personal friends, who have contracted cancer in the past few years. Marcia, an artist in her mid-forties, got breast cancer a couple years ago and had to have part of one breast removed. Kristin, a school teacher in her mid-forties, and a lifetime organic gardener, also contracted breast cancer last year. Nina (mid-forties) got breast cancer a few years ago and now she has no breasts at all. Kaye (mid-forties), a healthy, Bach Flower Remedy practitioner and natural food advocate, suddenly came down with breast cancer and died. She left several beautiful daughters behind. Sandy, another apparently healthy, slender school teacher in her forties, got cancer of the uterus and had it removed. She never had any children. My mother had lung cancer. Two of my aunts died of cancer. Several of my friend's fathers have died of cancer, as well as several of my father's friends. Other friends or their parents have had bouts with cancer, but survived. Some of these were people who lived healthy lifestyles, ate nutritious food, and were active. They still developed cancer. But then, so do animals in the wild, so do fish and sea mammals. Lifestyle seems to have little effect on whether one comes down with the disease. Why? Because there is no escape from the cancer-causing chemicals that now pervade our environment and enter our bodies through the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. Even household pets are not immune.
The World Health Organization has concluded that at least 80% of all cancer is attributed to environmental influences. One glaring example of this lies in the fact that industrialized countries have a lot more cancers than countries with little or no industry. Breast cancer rates are thirty times higher in the United States than in parts of Africa, for example. Childhood cancers have risen by one third since 1950, and now one in every four hundred Americans can expect to develop cancer before the age of fifteen. Between 1950 and 1991, incidences of all types of cancer combined have risen 49.3% in the United States. Cancer is now the second leading cause of death overall, and the leading cause of death among Americans between the ages of 35 to 64. Furthermore, the US EPA projects that tens of thousands of additional fatal skin cancers will result from the ozone depletion that has already occurred over North America.21
Cancer is not the only issue associated with the synthetic organic chemicals that we humans have created and have carelessly allowed to pollute the environment. Disturbing new evidence indicates that some of these pollutants mimic natural hormones and can wreak havoc with the endocrine (hormone) systems of many animals, including humans. Male fish are being found with female egg sacs, male alligators with shriveled penises, and human male sperm counts are plummeting. Some of these common organic chemical pollutants mimic estrogen, a powerful natural hormone governing the female reproductive system, an excess of which has been linked to cancer. Other chemical pollutants interfere with testosterone, the male sex hormone, or with thyroid metabolism. These chemical pollutants lodge in animal fat cells, traveling up the food chain to concentrate in higher animals - like us. They are becoming increasingly concentrated in human mother's milk, and they cross the placental barrier to enter developing fetuses. It's a well-documented fact that synthetic organic chemical pollutants have traveled far enough to pervade every corner of the world - you may have heard some of their names: dioxin, PCBs, DDT, 2,4-D. The average person can now expect to find at least 250 of these chemical contaminants in his or her body fat.22
Are cancer and endocrine disruption two of Mother Nature's defense mechanisms against organisms that have rudely gone awry? Are they not-so-subtle ways nature tells us that we're doing something wrong? Perhaps, and unfortunately the victims are often the innocent ones who bear no responsibility for the diseased state of the environment.
Our environmental misdeeds may be sowing the seeds of our own destruction in other ways as well. Damaging environmental changes seem to be contributing to the emergence of new toxic organisms, as well as the proliferation of old menaces such as malaria. Fifty new diseases have emerged since 1950, including Ebola, Lyme's Disease, Hantavirus, and HIV.23 The World Health Organization reports that AIDS (HIV virus) is approaching epidemic proportions in several countries in Africa, and is spreading to India and China.24 Researchers warn of the epidemic potential of the malarial mosquito population should global warming continue.25 Others report epidemic levels of coastal algal blooms, some of which are highly toxic to humans as well as fish, and are directly linked to excessive human pollution.26 Are these disease organisms some of nature's defense mechanisms, emerging in order to attack the human race? Although this is a chilling thought, it's not so chilling as the theory that this is just the beginning of the appearance of new diseases targeting the human race, and that future viruses may be as deadly as the plague and transmitted as easily as is the common cold.
"In effect, we are behaving as if we have no children, as though there will not be a next generation."
Lester R. Brown
Some would say that it looks like our environment is going to hell in a handbasket. Others would postulate that the human race is going along with it. Yet there are still those who would scoff at the idea that a tiny organism such as humanity could affect such an ancient and immense being as Mother Earth. This is a ludicrous concept, they argue; the very idea that the human species can be powerful enough to inflict illness on a planetary being is nothing more than egotism. Perhaps. Afterall, where is there any evidence that a planet can get sick and die? Where could we ever witness a planet that had once possibly teemed with life, where rivers flowed on its surface but long since dried up? Well, how about Mars?
What did happen to Mars, anyway? Our next door neighbor, the Red Planet, apparently was once covered with flowing rivers. What happened to them? Rivers suggest an atmosphere. Where is it? Was Mars once a vital, thriving planet? If so, why does it now appear dead? Could a lifeform on its surface have proliferated so abundantly, so profligately, and so recklessly that it deleteriously altered the planet's atmosphere, thereby knocking it off-kilter, and, in time, killing it? Is that what's happening to our own planet? Is it our legacy in this solar system to leave behind another dead rock to revolve around the sun? Or will we simply destroy ourselves while the Earth, stronger than her Martian brother, overcomes our infection and survives to flourish another billion years?
The answer, if I may wildly speculate, is neither - we will destroy neither the Earth nor ourselves. Instead, we will learn to live in a symbiotic relationship with our planet. To put it simply, the human species has reached a fork in the road of its evolution. We can continue to follow the way of disease-causing pathogens, or we can chart a new course as dependent and respectful inhabitants. The former requires only an egocentric lack of concern for anything but ourselves, living as if there were no tomorrow, as if there will be no future human generations. The latter, on the other hand, requires an awareness of ourselves as a dependent part of a Greater Being. This may require a hefty dose of humility, which we can either muster up ourselves, or wait until it's meted out to us, however tragically, by the greater world around us. Either way, we have to collectively make a decision, and the time is running out.
Fortunately, many competent people are already aware of and working on the problems touched upon in this chapter. Each of these problems is a piece to a puzzle, and each of them, when addressed individually, adds up to an overall solution. Like ants, we each work away at our particular areas of concern, doing our tiny bit to be a part of the solution to these problems, whether they be toxic waste, water pollution, global warming, cancer, or species extinctions.
It is ironic, however, that we humans have consistently ignored one problem that is very near to each of us - one waste issue that all of us contribute to each and every day - an environmental problem that has stalked our species from our genesis, and which will accompany us to our extinction. Perhaps one reason we have taken such a head-in-the-sand approach to the recycling of human excrement is because we can't even talk about it. If there is one thing that the human consumer culture refuses to deal with constructively, it's body excretions. This is the taboo topic, the unthinkable issue. It's also the one we are about to dive headlong into. For waste is not found in nature - it's strictly a human concept, a result of our own ignorance. It's up to us humans to unlock the secret to its elimination. Nature herself provides us with the key, and she has held it out to us for many thousands of years.
Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing, PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.